My full names is Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert. I was named after my mother's uncle, a Catholic priest, Joseph Ernest Vaccarest.
The first French settler in North America was Louis Hebert, an apothecary who with his wife Marie Rollet established a homestead in Quebec in 1617. The male line of the Louis Hebert Heberts died out. I read somewhere that all the Heberts in North America today are the descendants of two brothers who migrated from France to Acadia (present day Nova Scotia) in 1632. I like to think they were related to Louis Hebert, but who knows. It does please me that a Hebert beat those Mayflower people to the New World. When the English, in one of their more disgraceful Colonial adventures, deported the Acadians from their homeland in 1755, many of the inhabitants wound up in what is now Cajun country in Louisiana, which is why so many Heberts hail from that part of the world; for example, former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert.
I grew up a Hee-bert, though some New England Heberts spell the name A-b-a-r-e to approximate the ancient French pronunciation. Many a rural Yankee has called me Heebit, as in Ehnie Heebit, he's a writah. In Nova Scotia, it's Heh-bert. In my last visit to Montreal a few years ago, my name was pronounced Ee-bare by a hotel clerk. So there you have it: at least five different ways to say Hebert, and two different ways to spell it.
In the Darby Chronicles, the highest point within sight is a mountain which I named Abare's Folly. The explanation of how Abare's folly got its name appears in Howard Elman's Farewell, the seventh and concluding novel of the Darby Chronicles. In that book, there's a minor character named Josephine Abare. She's a native American writer, a nod to the female side of my own character and to the small amount of native blood in my heritage. In the book the explanation of the folly of Abare's Folly was trying farm above the 2,000 foot mark. But for me the folly was going against the advice of my first agent, Mavis McIntosh, who advised me against writing a book series. "They'll only read the first one," she said. She was right.
Vaccarest, my mother's maiden name and my middle name, is unusual to say the least. My great Grandfather, Giovanni Vaccaressi, was from the port town of LaSpezia, Italy, or maybe he only departed from there. Who can say? Not me. He migrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and moved to Quebec where his name was changed to Vaccarest, silent at the end, which I supposed sounded better to the people of Quebec. When Giovanni's son, Jean Baptiste–my grandfather–came to the states the spelling of his name remained intact, though the pronunciation was Americanized to give it a hard e-s-t sound, as in Crest toothpaste. My family history is full of unusual names– Alcide (great-grandfather), Elphege (dad), Elodie (mom's middle name) and Omer (brother), my middle name (vaccarest).
I believed that my name was Ernest Vaccarest Hebert until I had occasion to look at my birth certificate when I was age 18. It said Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert. I asked my mother where the "Joseph" came from. She told me that in her day Catholics from French Canada traditionally named the oldest boy in a family Joseph, after Jesus's earthly father. However, since that practice led to too many Josephs, one was given a second name to use day-to-day. I've flirted with the idea of writing under the pen name of Joe Vac.
I find it hard to speak my authorial name, Ernest Hebert. In speech, it comes out Erness Teebert. When I worked at The Keene Sentinel newspaper, my first boss was Sports Editor Bert Rafford; we were Bert and Ernie. Later, I transferred into the news department, where the managing editor was Frank Barndollar; we were Frank and E[a]rnest.
My wife Medora and some close friends call me Ern, and a handful of friends call me Ernesto because to them I look vaguely Hispanic. Indeed, the several times I've visited South Texas I've been stopped and checked by the border patrol. Maybe the sight of someone of my skin tone and aspect driving a car with New Hampshire plates sends up a warning flag. Once they check my driver's license and hear my New Hamsha accent they let me go.
I used to sign my books Ernest Hebert, but in the last decade or so I've written Ernie Hebert, which is what most people call me and which is how I think of myself.
My good friend, fellow writer and wise critic Terry Pindell, used to get on my case for making up silly names back when I was learning my craft as a fiction writer. My worst offense against Terry's sensibilities and other persons of refinement came in a book length sci-fi work I wrote that was never published. I named a character after a baseball term, Professor Juan Up Juan Down. I love collisions of language. I think the main wrap on puns is that they draw attention away from the content and to the author. So be it. Even today, when I should know better, I have a weakness for word plays that sometimes sabotages the emotion I'm trying to get across, though I try to be more artful about it, if artful is a sneaky way to say sneaky. I do try hard to name characters to create congruence with the story and to fit the characters in some subtle way, but word play is never far from the more important content.
Howard Elman is the protagonist of my first novel, The Dogs of March. His first name is in honor of E.M. Forester's novel, Howard's End. In fact, the working title for The Dogs of March was Howard's End. In Forster's book, the English village of Howard's End is in danger of losing its identity in the spreading London megalopolis in the early decades of the twentieth century. The state of New Hampshire went through a similar structural change in the 1970s when the new interstate highways closed the distances between New Hampshire and Boston and New Hampshire and New York.
When I was growing up in Keene in the 1950s, the place was known as The Elm City. I remember two huge elm trees on my family's property on 19 Oak Street. I watched while the city took them down after they were infected. The Keene elms were all destroyed by a disease, which came from overseas. My protagonist is also threatened by outside forces–so, Howard Elman. He's the elm man.
In The Dogs of March, Howard Elman's antagonist is Zoe Cutter. She tries to cut him down. I got the name "Zoe" from the Horowitz family in Westmoreland oh so many years ago. Carla and Milton Horowitz had a baby that they named Zoe. I loved that name and thought it fit Howard's antagonist quite well. Let me add that the real Zoe was a lot cuter than the fictional Zoe.
For Howard's son I wanted a name that could be both formal (Frederick) and slight (Freddie) to show his ambivalent nature. I named Howard's wife after another neighbor in Westmoreland. Her name was Eleanor Hood, a grand lady. However, I'm a poor speller, so Eleanor ended up as Elenore. Elenore continues on as a character in Howard Elman's Farewell, the seventh novel in the Darby Chronicles, even though she's dead. I tried to deepen the readers' knowledge of her character through Howard's recollections about her.
In Spoonwood, the sixth Darby book, Frederick Elman all grown up is the protagonist. Elenore Elman, in genealogy research, fails to discover anything about her own roots, but she does discover that Howard Elman's real name is Claude de Repentigny Latour. Howard, secure in his identity as an Elman, does not act on the new information. But Frederick changes his name to F. Latour, thus reclaiming a minuscule part of his ch-Canadian heritage. In the history of old Acadia, and indeed in the history of the shaping of North America, no name stands out more vividly than Latour. The story of Claude Latour and his son Charles is too deep and convoluted to get into here. It's enough to say that it makes fascinating reading. In my fictional world, Howard Elman is descended from the famous Latours of old Acadia, but also from Robert de Repentigny, a voyageur I created in my historical novel The Old American. In my imagination, the Elmans are distantly related to Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place. Grace's maiden name was de Repentigny, and according to my good friend, the writer Robert Perreault, Grace's parents likely were married by the Rev. Joseph Ernest Vaccarest, my uncle on my mother's side, my first mentor, and the man I am named after.
In The Old American Robert de Repentigny takes an Indian wife, who happens to be of mixed race. Her father is a refugee of the King Philip war of the late sixteen hundreds; her mother is a Seneca Iroquois whose father was an escaped black slave from the states who was adopted into the native American tribe. (For insight into what happened to all those runaway slaves who found their way to Canada I suggest The Internal Enemy by Alan Taylor.) Though he doesn't know it, Howard Elman has a little bit of Native American and Black African blood in his DNA. In Howard Elman's Farewell the reader learns that Elenore's ancestry, like Howard's, includes a smidgen of native American blood. I believe that anyone whose people have been in North America for a long period of time is likely to be a mutt of one kind or another.
I come by the idea of mixed blood honestly–I think (I say "I think" because I'm not absolutely sure). My mother, who was a nurse, did not believe in mixed marriages; that is, she didn't believe that a Catholic should marry someone from another faith. However, she had no racial prejudices. In fact, one of her frequent lines was, "It's good to mix the blood." In her later years she told me that her grandmother on her father's side was a Native, probably from Canada. "It's why you're so dark," she said. I wish now I had questioned her to acquire more information, but at the time she was very ill and weak and I was more interested in her health than in matters of our ancestry.
A minor character in my historical novel The Old American, Father Esubee Goulet is named after an ancestor of mine on my father's side. I don't know anything about the real Father Esubee Goulet. I just liked the name. Another priest who appears briefly in The Old American, Father Sanibel "Spike" Morrissette, is named after Jack Kerouac's priest in Lowell, Massachusetts. Though I don't think that Jack and I have much in common as writers, we do have a remarkably similar family story. We were both born in New Hampshire of parents with roots in French Canada; we both spoke French as our firsts language until age 5. I had a memorable lunch with Father Spike Morrissette relating to a news column I was writing about Kerouac. Father Spike told me Kerouac stories while knocking down three Manhattans. He was great company; I wish I had known him better. The last time I was in Lowell I noticed a street named Father Morrissette Boulevard.
Another minor character is Lawrence Dracut, Howard's nemesis in Howard Elman's Farewell. I got the idea for the Lawrence Dracut exit sign on I–93 in Massachusetts. Lawrence and Dracut, are cities. If you're on the look out for them road signs can give a writer a lot of ideas for fictional but plausible names. Perhaps in the future I'll name a character Chester Ludlow from a sign on I–91 in Vermont.
Mistakes? I've made a few. The tragic heroine of Live Free or Die, the fifth Darby novel, is Lilith Salmon. One of the supposed origins of Lilith is "woman of the rocks" and since Lilith dies on a ledge, I thought the name fit nicely. My brain must have been scrambled. I don't think there's a more unpleasant word on the tongue than Lilith. It's not only hard to say, it creeps me out to voice it. In the sixth Darby novel, Spoonwood, I changed her name to Laura, after the mountain laurel on the ledges where she perished giving birth. However, my editor, John Landrigan, argued that to change the name would be to confuse, yea even to betray, readers of the Darby novels. In our discussions he used the word "consistency" more than once. He won me over with his argument and I changed Laura back to Lilith. But every time I see Lilith in print I want to puke.
About consistency: There are bound to be some, probably many, inconsistencies in the Darby Chronicles, because I've never actually read one of my books after it has been published. Every time I sneak a peek at a published book, I find something wrong and become upset because I can't change it. The most flagrant inconsistency was deliberate and probably one of my bigger errors in judgement. After book two, I changed the name of Keene to Tuckerman. Keene is a real place, and I thought by changing the name I could fictionalize it more honestly. But, really, that is not a very good reason. I changed the name back to Keene in book six, Spoonwood, but the damage was done.
A salmon is of course an elite fish, so I thought Salmon would make a good name for the elite family of Upper Darby. Professor Chauncey Loomis, a colleague in the English Department and a man I consider one of my mentors, gave me the idea to pronounce the name Sal-mohn. Raphael Salmon is the founder of the Salmon Trust, a handsome, imperious and ultimately doomed man. Some people–though not my editors–at Viking Press, which published the first five books of the Darby series, encouraged me to make Raphael (more often called Reggie or the Squire) the protagonist of a Darby novel. The idea was that featuring the elite guy and his family would sell more books. I'm sure they were right, but I wanted the series to focus on ordinary working people. I knew from the start that that was not exactly a great career move, but I stuck with my original plan anyway.
One of my favorite newer characters is Tahoka Texas McCloud, the daughter of Heather Elman, Howard and Elenore's youngest daughter, who was raised by Zoe Cutter (see The Dogs of March). In my many road trips I almost always stopped in Plains and later San Angelo, Texas, to visit with my wife's cousin Maryjane McCord and her family. Over the years I watched her children grow up. The eldest was Marla, who matured into a beautiful young woman with a dynamic personality. She died too young of a fast-moving cancer. Marla had a way of talking that I really liked. Her accent was pure Texas-Southern, but it certainly wasn't a drawl. She talked real fast. Let me add that Tahoka, Texas, is in the same West Texas region that my wife's cousin, Maryjane, is from. I loved the sound of Tahoka, Texas, so I named my character Tahoka Texas McCloud. Tahoka has Marla's looks and speed-talking lingo, but a back story that is not based on real people but is purely fictional.
Another of my favorite characters in the Darby Chronicles is the hermit, Cooty Patterson. Cooty is a kind of a bridge to the Elman men–Howard, Howard's son F. Latour, and Latour's son, Birch Latour. They unburden themselves to Cooty. Cooty offers no advice, but even so his presence inspires the Elmen men to think and act. Cooty is known far and wide for his stew pot. He gets his protein from road kill and veggies from dumpsters. The stew pot, according to legend, has never been emptied. Cooty just keeps adding to it down through the decades. At this writing, he's still at it, though he's older than one hundred. Some characters you don't want to kill off.
Corey "Cooty" Patterson is based upon two people. One is Perley Swett of Stoddard, NH, who was a real hermit. Perley was a small man, with wild long white hair and a mustache. He was also quite handsome; he looked like a photoshopped-air-brushed version of Albert Einstein in old age. I met him once and took his picture back 1969. I really didn't know much about Perely when ten years later I, in effect, cast his physique for the role of Cooty Patterson in my first novel. Three more decades passed and I read PERLEY, a biography of the old hermit by his granddaughter, Sheila Swett. It's a magnificent portrait of a complex human being. It was Sheila's work that inspired me to make Cooty more complex in Howard Elman's Farewell.
Cooty's personality, not exactly crazy but kind of spaced out, was based on Jimmy Dow, a custodian in a factory where I worked a summer in high school. However, as it turned out, Jimmy Dow, the real person was nothing like my fictional creation. Jimmy got married and moved south. Cooty? Never. The fact is Cooty's core identity, like almost all my characters, is based on a particular quirk of my own personality. Part of me would love to cut himself off from all humanity and live out his days in a cabin in the woods. Since I was ambitious and a family man, I could only live as a country hermit in my imagination.
One more thing about Cooty. Though I was thinking of Perley Swett when I created Cooty, in my mind he had a different look than Perley, though I could not picture what it was. Then during the time period I was writing Howard Elman's Farewell I happened to be looking at paintings on the Internet when I came across a self-portrait of one of my favorite painters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I thought, that's him, that's Cooty Patterson.